Counting Doesn't Account for Enough When It Comes to Gun Violence
A New York Times editorial 477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action from Congress presents a straightforward accounting of the past year and a half since the Orlando nightclub tragedy. The numbers are staggering, and from any perspective—data analyst, politician, or parent—unfathomable, as is the ongoing inability of Congress to legislate safer gun laws.
In response to the Las Vegas shooting, Dan Hodges' 2015 Tweet started making the rounds again, seemingly tugging at the worn-out heartstrings of the American people:
In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.
In the early hours and days after the Stephen Paddock killed 59 people in Vegas, the despair was understandable yet frustrating. Those who work so hard to protect our children, to protect us all, through tighter restrictions—better background checks, longer waiting periods, bans on silencers and assault weapons—even these people seemed about to give in.
But have we reached our limit to continue to work for safer schools, safer hospitals, safer nightclubs, safer places of work—you get it, a safer way of life?
I think not.
Have we been focusing on all the right issues?
There has been, for good reason, focus on the numbers. We tend to think in dates and numbers. When did that shooting happen, and how many were shot? How many were killed?
For many of us, the counting began as long ago as 1999 in Columbine, when two teens killed 12 students, one teacher, and then themselves using guns purchased by an 18-year-old friend of theirs. The Columbine shooting was one of the first mass shootings to spark national debate over gun control, and while some attempt was made to analyze the mental health of the two young killers, the shooting also resulted in a zero tolerance policy toward any sort of perceived misconduct at our nations' high schools. Misconduct?
Still others count from Sandy Hook, where on December 14, 2012, the 20-year-old troubled son of a school employee shot and killed 20 elementary school children and six adults. For five years, we have pledged our support to the Sandy Hook families, but we have failed them. We have not lived up to the promise to enact stricter regulations, and we have not made much progress in understanding and preventing the underlying causes behind such extraordinary acts of violence.
You can count from the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007, where a 23-year-old student killed 33 students. This massacre was committed in two separate shootings. During the first, he shot two people. The young shooter was then able to mail a package containing a video confession and photographs before killing 31 others. This student had been ordered by a judge to seek psychiatric help and evaluated by a mental health facility two years before buying the Walther 32 and Glock pistol with which he committed his crimes.
There's a pattern here, and it's something that has been both exploited and neglected by one party or the other when discussing gun violence in this country. While it is true that guns are getting into the hands of the wrong people, it is also true that we have missed importation opportunities to prevent these tragedies by paying attention to those who are in need of ongoing mental health care.
Debating the power of prayer
With the death toll rising with these most recent shootings, the patience of a nation wanes. Yesterday, members of Congress locked armed as they walked down the steps of the Capitol and addressed the nation. Made up of democratic leaders and featuring Senator John Lewis and Gabby Giffords, it was a necessary statement to assure the American people that their elected officials are still engaged in an effort to prevent further loss of life.
“What will move this Congress to act?” John Lewis asked. “We hold moments of silence and vigils, and offer our thoughts and prayers, and it is all a show or placeholder until people forget.”
“Don’t tell me otherwise. . . I lost colleagues in Mississippi and Alabama to gun violence. We lost Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a man with a rifle. We lost Senator Robert Kennedy to a man with a handgun. We have seen too many gun deaths and I am here to say right now, ‘This must stop, and it must stop now.'”
Amen. But really? Across social media, people stopped debating whether football players could kneel in protest, or prayer, or at all for a moment to discuss the efficacy of prayer in the face of gun violence. As the number of shootings rise, so does the list of things we are calling into question. Will the paradigm of prayer be rewritten as a result of excessive gun violence?
A tale of one city and many missions
Sandy Hook mother and one of the founders of Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), Nicole Hockley, has a different, and perhaps surprisingly wider perspective than those dems on the steps. In a Guardian interview following the Vegas shootings, Hockley expressed some outrage over the potential despair arising out of the sheer number of shootings occurring in this country.
“People always say, ‘Oh, nothing’s happened, and therefore nothing’s going to happen,’” Hockley said. “For Christ’s sake, why be so defeatist? There are things you can do."
Hockley describes an approach against gun violence analogous to that used against drunk driving: behavior change before legislative change. Just as the "Designated Driver" movement resulted in improved individual behaviors and police practices, so too could social change around the different issues contributing to gun violence lead to further positive change. Instead of focusing on solely on guns, Hockley and SNP endorse the following:
Teach people to identify at-risk behavior and to effectively intervene.
Advocate for better mental health funding and services
Improved response to childhood trauma
Improved access to inpatient psychiatric care.
Eliminate stigma around mental health in the media.
Educate and improve how law enforcement responds to people with mental illness.
Join local violence prevention groups.
The efforts of Sandy Hook Promise are met in equal stride by those of the Newton Action Alliance (NAA), an organization, which like Sandy Hook Promise, was formed after the tragedy by a group of survivors. While the NAA's activities appear to be wide-ranging and geared toward building collaboration between similarly-minded groups, it's mission is more closely tied to reducing gun violence through legislation.
It's confounding, we need a multi-pronged approach, and we need it now.
As the story of Sandy Hook illustrates, there is no single way to address the issue of gun violence.
It's interesting how polite and considerate the Republicans get when silence is in their favor. Mark Kelly, astronaut, husband of Gabby Giffords, and co-founder of American for Responsible Solutions, spoke on several news outlets following the Vegas shooting and cleared it up for us all. Now is the time to talk about gun legislation. Despite the republican leadership's effort to silence the debate, we must continue to address this issue on many different fronts. The number of groups formed to address the issue of gun violence in this country has grown over the past few years.
And that's an increase we are happy to see.
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